Writing by Hand

Readers of The Rosemary Spell will recall that Rosemary draws frequently on the books she’s read, and most of these are books from the real world, such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. However, Rosemary’s favorite book is a fictional work of my own invention called Pelagia’s Boats. As promised in the blurb at the back of The Rosemary Spell, I’m working hard to bring this book into the real world.

I spent a long time playing around with ideas and rushing into a few false starts. The real story crystallized about a year ago, and I’ve been shaping it since. I’m now at the stage I think of as the messy-revision stage. I have a full draft. All the characters and plot points are more or less in place. I’ve gotten feedback from my wonderful critique partners (CPs). And now I face the painstaking task of making the whole thing better.

I went through the document and used Word’s “insert comments” feature to add notes, first my own and then paraphrases of those offered by my CPs. I’m now working from a printout of this comment-laced document. I check off comments as I address them, and I make changes to the text by hand. I almost always work this way at the messy-revision stage. In fact, I already described part of the process in an earlier post, which you can read here. In brief, revising by hand makes the process visible.

Writing by hand, even if only inserting better word choices or added phrases, is also slower than writing on the computer. The pace allows me to be more deliberate. It provides the chance to see problems I might hurry past if I were typing. Still, I’m grateful to live in a time in which I’m not obligated to do all my writing by hand.

Yet, as I work through the messy-revision stage on Pelagia’s Boats, I find that I’m rewriting a lot. I’m changing some relationships and developing some plot points, both of which require new or substantially revised text. I’m also replacing a fair bit of sketch-style telling (i.e. Pelagia was confident) with more substantive showing (i.e. Pelagia’s fingers moved through the motions of the knot–over, under, leave some slack, and through). Thus, instead of the occasional word or phrase written in here and there, I’m writing whole paragraphs, even pages.

Yesterday, I squeezed a new paragraph at the bottom of a typed page, then drew an arrow to remind myself the new material continued on the reverse side. I filled up that blank page and pulled a notebook from my drawer. I kept writing, still by hand, and filled up the front and back of three pages of full-sized notebook paper. At some point, I realized I’m basically writing this novel by hand. I gave myself permission to stop that nonsense and return to the computer, but I couldn’t do it.

Maybe because it’s slow, maybe because I can see the changes I’m making, maybe because the book is about a girl who works with her hands… whatever the reason, I’ve come to believe that Pelagia’s Boats wants to be written by hand.

So for everyone who’s waiting to read this book, I promise I’m working hard, but as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen would tell you, writing a novel by hand is slow going. Slow can be good, though. Change can be good. And seeing my looping letters on the page reminds me that, like Pelagia, I’m making something not only with my brain and my imagination but also with my hands.

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